Civil engineers are responsible for designing, constructing, and maintaining the built environment. This includes, but not limited to, designing and constructing buildings, roads, bridges, dams, sewer systems, and gas lines. Some people might also agree that civil engineers help take architects’ blueprints and turn it to reality.
Civil engineering is a very broad field; there are 5 main branches of civil engineering — structural engineering, geotechnical engineering, transportation engineering, construction engineering, and architectural engineering. In a typical project, civil engineers from the different fields will work together on different aspects of the project to deliver one final product.
Structural Engineers design and analyze structures. They usually work with the architect to design the ‘backbone’ of the building designed by the architect. Structural engineers are not only responsible for designing structures that are strong enough to sustain the designed loads; they are also responsible for ensuring that the structures they design meet the owner’s budget. They are typically involved in the initial phase of a civil engineering project. Some specializations within Structural Engineering include earthquake engineering, bridge engineering, and facade engineering.
Geotechnical Engineers study the behaviors of earth materials. They use soil and rock mechanic theories to investigate the soil conditions at a project site and engineer a solution that will allow the soil to sustain the loads that will be applied to the soil by the structures and to mitigate the effects of natural hazards (eg earthquakes, floods, landslides etc) on the completed buildings/structures. They are typically involved in a project from the start (design, site investigation etc) all the way to the end of the project (inspections, construction monitoring etc). Some specializations within geotechnical engineering include foundation engineering, soil mechanics, rock mechanics, and geotechnical earthquake engineering.
Transportation Engineers are responsible for planning, designing, constructing, operating, and maintaining systems and facilities that transport people and goods in a safe, fast, efficient, comfortable, and economical manner. Examples of such systems/facilities include airports, waterways, ports, highways, railroads, and urban transportation systems. Some specializations within transportation engineering include highway engineering, railroad engineering, port and harbor engineering, and airport engineering.
A Construction Engineer’s is a combination of a construction manager and a civil engineer. They are mainly involved in the design, construction, and operation of buildings and infrastructure. Unlike regular construction managers, whose primarily concerns are delivering the project on time and on budget, construction engineers are also involved in the design aspects of the project. Construction engineers are also involved in coming up with ways to make a building/structure more ‘constructible’ (i,e easier, faster, cheaper to build). Although construction engineers typically do not need to be licensed, having a license will make a construction engineer more marketable and credible when working with other engineers.
Architectural Engineers, also known as Building Engineers, apply engineering principles in the design and construction of other structures. They focus on areas such as designing HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning), plumbing, fire-fighting, and electrical systems. They are also involved in acoustics and lighting plans, as well as energy issues in a building.
The Civil Engineering Education
In addition to regular math and science classes, most civil engineering programs require students to take basic civil engineering classes such as solid mechanics, fluid mechanics, civil engineering materials, soil mechanics, and statistics. Since effective communication is a key part of the job, some programs also require students to take some technical writing courses as well. After completing the basic civil engineering classes and mastering the fundamentals, students can then take more advanced classes like structural engineering, soil mechanics, and foundation design, construction engineering, etc.
I would consider my civil engineering education as somewhat unique. I was part of a civil engineering program that emphasizes the importance of being an all-rounded civil engineer; we were told to refrain from choosing a specialization as an undergraduate. As such, I have a wide array of coursework under my belt — from Steel Structure Design and Foundation design to Airport Design and Construction Engineering. I did not realize how valuable this was until I started working in the industry. As a civil engineer, we often work in multidisciplinary teams; it is important to have a basic understanding and appreciation of what the other engineers’ jobs entail to be able to communicate effectively with the team. For instance, if you are a structural engineer, you will most probably have to work with foundation engineers, geotechnical engineers, and construction engineers. Imagine how hard it would be to do your job if you know absolutely nothing about what the other engineers do!
Graduating with a degree in civil engineering does not automatically make you a civil engineer (just like how you are not automatically a lawyer after graduating with your law degree). Some specializations within civil engineering, such as structural engineering, requires a license to practice, while some others, such as construction engineering, do not. Obtaining a professional engineering license would help the engineer garner a lot of respect and credibility among his/her peers. However, as Spiderman’s uncle once said, with great power comes great responsibility. With a PE license, an engineer would have the authority to sign off on drawings and assumes responsibility if anything bad, such as structural failure, happens to their building.
Here is how you can obtain your PE license*:
1. Graduate with a Bachelor in Civil Engineering from an accredited university
2. Take the FE exam, preferably before you graduate.
3. After passing the test, you will obtain an ‘Engineer in Training’ title and will be able to work under the supervision of a licensed engineer.
3. Work under a professional engineer for at least 4 years
4. Take the Practices in Engineering (PE) test
5. Get your license!
Similar to obtaining a law or medical license, obtaining a PE license can be a long and arduous journey. However, fret not! There are many other exciting and rewarding careers within civil engineering that do not require a professional engineering license. As a general guideline, jobs that do not require you to sign off on engineering calculations or designs would not require you to have a PE license. If you do not wish to go through all the trouble to get your PE license, you might want to consider a career in construction management, real estate development, academia and more.
In conclusion, if you are excited about buildings, infrastructure, and building cool stuff, you should definitely consider a career in civil engineer. As a civil engineer, you will witness great structures being built every day and contribute to society through your work. Whether it is an ‘out of this world’ skyscraper like the Burj Khalifa, or a simple single family home you see around your neighborhood, it is a highly rewarding career as you will always have the opportunity to make an impact in someone’s life through your work.
*Based of California requirements. Licensure requirements may differ in different states/countries.
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Catrin graduated with a BS in Civil Engineering from UC Berkeley in 2013 and an MS in Civil Engineering (Construction Engineering Management) from Stanford University in 2015. She currently works for a real estate private equity fund in San Francisco, managing the fund's new ground up construction and rehabilitation projects.